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These 'Superworms' Can Eat Styrofoam and Could Help Reduce Plastic Waste

by Rudy Sanchez on 06/21/2022 | 2 Minute Read

Even if all production of plastic suddenly ceased tomorrow, we’d still have ginormous piles of stuff in the environment, including the ocean. Waiting until plastic pollution degrades isn’t a great option since that takes centuries, generating microscopic pieces of synthetic material that get eaten or absorbed by flora and fauna. 

However, new research provides insight into how gut microbes in beetle larvae digest plastic.

Australian researchers from the University of Queensland recently published a study that delves into how gut bacteria in insects such as Zophobas morio larvae, also known as “super worms” and a common pet reptile food, adapt to a plastic diet.

Scientists studied three groups of larvae, with one group fed bran, another expanded polystyrene foam, and the third group starved. The bran-reared super worms were the healthiest, while the plastic-fed larvae showed minimal weight gain and were more susceptible to pathogens, living a life characterized by the study’s authors as “survival under poor health conditions.” But the breakthrough in understanding the metagenomic exploration of the super worm’s gut microbe is the first step in creating the same biome conditions without the beetle larvae.

Here’s a video from Scientific American where you can see the super worms chowing down on a piece of styrofoam. You can even hear them do it.

The research provides only a peek into how gut microbes in insects respond to a plastic diet and creates a new series of questions and inquiries. More study is needed to understand which bacteria are active on a plastic diet, which genes get transcribed, or if bacteria can conserve energy eating polystyrene. With further research, the scientists hope they can pinpoint which bacterial enzyme is responsible for breaking down polystyrene. This way, they could potentially expand their study into a process that fully degrades plastic or upcycling their waste into a new plastic-like substrate.